As a communicator, Trump has long been most successful when trading in memes, resonant ideas that evolve as they travel across audiences. This sense of memes includes — but is much broader than — the “funny picture on the Internet” definition that tends to be the default when discussing Internet culture. The term encompasses a broader cultural process that’s more about verbs than nouns — that is, with ways of doing things in dialogue with one another. In this sense, memes emerge through the “collective creation, circulation, and transformation” of media, from behaviors to images to catchphrases like “Lock him up.”
Trump’s biggest memetic hits during the 2016 election included promises to “Make America Great Again,” drain the D.C. “swamp,” build a “big, beautiful” wall along the southern border, and of course, to “Lock her up.” His presidency has also generated a litany of successful memes. Disagreeable press became “fake news,” accountability became “Presidential harassment,” and a caravan of Central American refugees became a violent “invasion.”
These memes have worked because they’re so abstract. “MAGA!” and “you are fake news!” and “THE CARAVAN!!” aren’t about making logical arguments; they’re asserting feelings, often bigoted ones, about the world. Unencumbered by the anchors of specificity, these memes can travel seamlessly across social media much more easily than stories that go into specific detail about specific lives. Those stories, after all, require reading and thinking. Trumpian memes only require gut reactions, specifically fear and loathing that an amorphous them is out to get us.
Trump’s reliance on gut-level memes has served to motivate his base. It’s also allowed Trump to dominate the attention economy. From the moment he announced his candidacy in 2015, his memes have been easy to report on. The pattern goes like this: Trump says something racist or abusive or absurd, his supporters start churning out GIFs and photoshops, Trump retweets the worst of them, his detractors go into a panic, and the news narrative writes itself. Trump’s memes, in other words, have helped ensure that news cycles play out on Trump’s terms.
But as Trump’s embarrassing greeting at Nationals Park suggests, that dynamic has begun to shift — all the more so as the impeachment inquiry has picked up speed. While Trump’s most resonant memes are endlessly remixable in their abstraction, the Ukraine scandal is concretely incriminating in its facts. As these facts have accumulated, growing more damning each day, they’ve begun to disrupt his memetic force field. What’s been left behind is a politician suddenly reliant on the traditional mechanisms of governance.
That’s bad news for Trump, who’s always been better at trumpeting his accomplishments than at actually accomplishing things. But it has also created space for Democratic memes to filter in — memes that remain just as tantalizing for journalists, only to much different ends. Reporters pounced, for example, when Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), echoing Trump’s alterations of the official Hurricane Dorian forecast, sharpied a map in mock support of Trump’s assertion that we can protect the southern border by building a wall in Colorado.
And then there’s Hillary Clinton, who appears to be relishing her position as chief Trump provocateur (or “Master Troll,” as the New York Times put it). Most recently, Clinton lampooned Trump’s jarringly informal letter to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan by tweeting a parody wherein President John F. Kennedy tells Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev that the Cuban missile crisis is going to make people “call your garbage country ‘The Soviet Bunion.’ ”
Even as they hijack eyeballs that would normally be on the president, the politicians and citizens memeing their way through the impeachment inquiry are doing something different from Trump. They’re grounding their memes in the specificity of the moment. Leahy wasn’t just making fun of Trump’s lack of geographical knowledge; he was calling attention to one of his many abuses of power. Clinton wasn’t just satirizing Trump’s letter to Erdogan; she was emphasizing his fundamental unfitness for office and self-serving foreign policy. She was also, of course, ensuring that in articles describing her letter, reporters would once again repeat the details of the Ukraine call.
Messages that memeify Trump’s crimes are part of the same attention economy that has long benefited Trump and his memes. But now underlying arguments, rooted in things that are actually happening, are being amplified. In other words, Democratic politicians — along with everyday citizens — are using the very techniques Trump used to make us look away from his scandals to instead make us pay attention to them. For the first time in his political life, Trump can’t meme the problem away.
Not that he hasn’t tried — but these efforts have either backfired or simply failed. For example, when he attempted to show what a “third-grade” politician House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was by posting a photo of her pointing defiantly at the president during a heated White House meeting, Pelosi responded by making the image her banner photo on Twitter. Similarly, while he was able to generate some headlines after he asserted that facing consequences for his crimes was a “lynching,” a defense long favored by powerful men, the news cycle didn’t budge. Nor did it budge after the successful raid against al-Baghdadi. Many framed the raid as a “win” for Trump, and he certainly did his best to create a spectacle during his presser. Still, within hours, headlines were dominated by the “Lock him up” chant — returning the conversation, once again, to impeachment.
These failures challenge the conventional wisdom about Trump. His inability to move the needle on impeachment may be due to how richly deserving of impeachment he is. But it may also be something else: that his political success was a product of the attention economy, journalistic amplification and everybody else doing his PR work for him — even when the goal was to condemn him. In other words, it’s looking like the God Emperor has no clothes.